Stupid people are confident, while the intelligent are doubtful

That is how an introduction to a transcript from a radio program begins on the Australian network, ABC. On the program The Science Show, they explored the conclusions reached by David Dunning and Justin Kruger when they studied people’s perceptions of their own talents. Now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, it helps explain why moderately skilled people act as experts, and inept politicians get our votes.

We’ll touch on how this relates to wildland fire in a moment, but first here are some excerpts from the radio show transcript.

…And here’s the kicker; across every test, the students at the bottom end of the bell curve held inflated opinions of their own talents, hugely inflated. In one test of logical reasoning, the lowest quartile of students estimated that their skills would put them above more than 60% of their peers when in fact they had beaten out just 12%. To put that misjudgement in perspective, it’s like guessing that this piece of music [music for 5 seconds] lasted nearly half a minute.

Even more surprisingly, the Dunning-Kruger effect leads high achievers to doubt themselves, because on the other end of the bell curve the talented students consistently underestimated their performance. Again to the test of logic; those topping the class felt that they were only just beating out three-quarters of their classmates, whereas in reality they had out-performed almost 90% of them.

The verdict was in; idiots get confident while the smart get modest, an idea that was around long before Dunning and Kruger’s day. Bertrand Russell once said, ‘In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.’ From his essay ‘The Triumph of Stupidity’, published in 1933.

Charles Darwin once said, ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge,’ and Dunning and Kruger seem to have proven this point. In light of this, it suddenly becomes clear why public debate can be so excruciating. Debates on climate change, the age of the Earth or intelligent design are perfect real-life examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect. It beautifully explains the utter confidence of those who, with no expertise, remain stubborn in their views regardless of overwhelming evidence. It makes you want to shake them by the collar and scream about how stupid they are. But evidence shows that’s not the best strategy.

Have you ever been on a fire and met a Squad Boss, Crew Boss, or Division Supervisor who you knew was not the sharpest tool in the cache, but who was supremely confident in their abilities? They might be the person who just can’t understand why their supervisors have not recognized their huge potential and wonder why they have not been promoted every year.

In some cases, this person may be ineffective but benign. Their screw-ups may be inconvenient or costly but not life-threatening. But if someone on a fire, with power and authority, over-estimates their skill and ability, the consequences can be disastrous.

Some people don’t know what they don’t know. They have no idea or self-awareness about the holes in their knowledge and experience. You may know of a politician or two that can be described this way coughsarahpalincough.

I can think of several fatality and near-miss incidents on wildfires where this was, in my humble opinion, the primary cause of the accident. But it is not politically correct for the writers of the accident reports to spell it out so clearly. One report that came close is the one about last August’s escaped prescribed fire in Yosemite National Park where the the writers used the term “hubris”.

How do we avoid the trap of over-confident people making poor decisions on fires?

  • The first step is to be sure that firefighters can proficiently perform the jobs that appear on their red cards.
  • Next, be sure that everyone receives an honest performance rating on every fire, at least a verbal one, and preferably a written one for significant fires or assignments.
  • Conduct After Action Reviews at the end of shifts or fires.
  • And, if you are given an assignment that does not make sense, or causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, say something.
  • If an individual does this to you repeatedly, have a chat with their supervisor or the Safety Officer. Filing a SAFENET form that does not list names may not be effective.


This Day in Wildland Fire History

Kathy Komatz of the National Park Service in Boise has received one of the five Paul Gleason Lead by Example Awards for 2009 (as detailed at  Komatz received the award for developing “This Day in Wildland Fire History”, which in association with Six Minutes for Safety provides lessons learned based on what I call “infamous fires”. Komatz’s information is available from a calendar on the Wildfire Lessons Learned web site, or this page. The calendar appears to be still under development, but the page that lists all of the “This Day in Wildland Fire History” topics has them all, without the dates. A presentation that is part of this year’s wildland fire refresher provides more details about this project.

(Update 5-20-2010; the Six Minutes for Safety Calendar can be found HERE.

Years ago I began compiling a list of “Infamous Wildland  Fires Around the World“, the latest version of which is on our Documents page. It includes short descriptions of fatality and other significant fires listed by date of the year. As I wrote in the document:

There are several purposes of doing the research and compiling this list by calendar date.  It is hoped that individuals and organizations involved in fire, especially wildland fire, will mark these dates on a calendar.

By having these wildland fires on a calendar, the lessons learned from even a 150 year old fire will be less likely to be forgotten.  An unforgotten lesson learned may save the life of a current or future firefighter.

I am pleased to see that Komatz is listing lessons learned opportunities on a calendar. There is no point in re-inventing the wheel, or re-inventing a lesson learned, if someone has already done it for you, at great cost.

And congratulations to the other four winners of the Paul Gleason awards for 2009: Stan Stewart, Pete Glover, Steve Holdsambeck, and especially Dennis Baldridge, a fellow former El Cariso Hot Shot.

The rush of battle

“The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” Chris Hedges

The movie The Hurt Locker, opens with that quote on the screen. I saw it yesterday, an excellent movie about a U.S. Army bomb squad, or Emergency Ordinance Disposal team, working in Baghdad, Iraq in 2004. It is a very gripping movie that as Kenneth Turan, a film critic for the LA Times said,  “it simply blows you apart and doesn’t bother putting you back together again”. The movie has been nominated for nine academy awards.

The interactions between the individuals in the bomb squad, and the tense drama as improvised explosive devices are being disarmed, are fascinating. The leader of the unit, Sergeant First Class William James, is a risk taker, a reckless cowboy sometimes putting not only himself but the rest of the unit and innocent bystanders in peril.

After Sgt. James put out a vehicle fire with a 20-pound dry chemical fire extinguisher, and then disarmed a huge bomb in the car’s trunk, an officer called him repeatedly a “Wild Man, a Wild Man”.  At first I was not sure if that was a compliment, but the officer thought it was. He was proud of the Sergeant, while the rest of his unit had been advising him to abandon the rigged car, since everyone had been evacuated from the area and it was much too hazardous to attempt to disarm the bomb in the still-smoking car which could have been detonated at any time by an insurgent with a cell phone.

You may know someone like this in the firefighting profession.

But I hope you don’t.

I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that firefighting is a “potent and lethal addiction”, or is a “drug”, but a person could draw some parallels between warfighting and firefighting.  Well, on second thought, it might be a potent addiction, while being occasionally lethal, unfortunately.

"Safety" or "risk management" in wildland fire?

The Colorado Fire Camp sent out a message from their Twitter account to their 101 followers on October 21 which said:

#OSHA vs. wildfire agencies: Safety & Health no longer goal of #NWCG structure, new focus on risk management 2:50 PM Oct 21st from TweetDeck

To say that safety and health are no longer goals of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) seemed rather surprising, so I went to the link, which leads to an organization chart showing the Committees of the NWCG.


A portion of the chart is shown here on the right. As you can see, the organization is changing. The “Safety and Health Working Team” is becoming the “Risk Management” committee, and the “Incident Operations Standards Working Team” is merging with the “Training Working Team” to become the “Operations and Workforce Development” committee.

To say that “safety and health is no longer a goal” of the NWCG is misleading at best. And yes, the term “safety” in the organization chart has been replaced with “risk management”. But that does not mean that “safety and health is no longer a goal”.

Here are some definitions of the term “risk management”.

  • Risk Management is the identification, assessment, and prioritization of risks followed by coordinated and economical application of resources to minimize, monitor, and control the probability and/or impact of unfortunate events.
  • The process of determining the maximum acceptable level of overall risk to and from a proposed activity, then using risk assessment techniques to determine the initial level of risk and, if this is excessive, developing a strategy to ameliorate appropriate individual risks until the overall level of risk is reduced to an acceptable level.
  • Risk management is the active process of identifying, assessing, communicating and managing the risks facing an organization to ensure that an organization meets its objectives.
  • The technique or profession of assessing, minimizing, and preventing accidental loss to a business, as through the use of insurance, safety measures, etc. Origin: 1960–65.

I exchanged some email messages with Michelle Ryerson, the fire safety program manager for the Bureau of Land Management, the current chair of the Safety and Health Working Team, and interim chair for the Risk Management Committee. I asked about the reason for the changes and she said the name change better reflects their approach to safe and effective fireline operations. The reorganization of the NWCG gave the groups an opportunity to change the names, encompassing a more comprehensive programmatic approach.

“We are in the process of converting over”, she said, “but have not been officially chartered under the new title of ‘Risk Management Committee’ (mission will remain the same) — plan to have conversion happen early spring of 2010 and will make note of it on our website”.

I asked what the effect of the change would be on firefighters. She responded: Continue reading “"Safety" or "risk management" in wildland fire?”

Lessons learned from an air tanker pilot during 40-year career

This excellent video is described like this:

Lessons Learned from Air Tanker Pilot Bill Waldman

For 40 eventful years, chief pilot Bill Waldman supported wildland fire suppression activities by making more than 13,000 retardant drops on fires in practically every state in this country, including Alaska, Canada, and Mexico. In this interview, Captain Waldman shares valuable insights gained from his extensive career—and provides priceless advice to pilots just beginning theirs’.

We appreciate Mr. Waldman sharing some of the things he has learned. Many of them can be translated to fire suppression on the ground as well as in the air.


Gas strut explosion, Sacramento vehicle fire

The Sacramento Fire Department issued a “green sheet” that summarizes an interesting development that occurred during the suppression of a vehicle fire on September 26. Two gas struts that assist in opening the hood exploded, propelling the struts out the front of the vehicle. Both struts struck a garage door. One made a hole in the door and bounced off. The other penetrated the door and became embedded, leaving only about three inches of the strut exposed, making a one inch hole in the door.

Thankfully, the burning vehicle was parked one or two feet from a garage, making it impractical for the firefighters to make their attack from the front, which is not advised anyway due to the possibility of gas shock absorbers being in the front bumper assembly.

You never know for sure where these gas struts can be in a vehicle. They can also be found in rear hatch doors or the rear windows on SUV’s.
Photos from Sacramento FD Green Sheet

On January 29, 2009 we posted a video of what was probably the front bumper exploding off the front of a burning car. That is HERE.

As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus said, “Let’s be careful out there”.